Wokingham Borough Council will be putting forward its annual budget for approval on 16 February, making the tough decisions to ensure that it remains financially sound and protects those most in need.
Financial pressures, high costs and inadequate Government funding have meant significant savings need to be made, causing the challenge of setting the budget (for April 2023 to March 2024) to be one of the toughest the council has ever faced. However, the council is confident this robust and balanced budget will ensure financial security for the borough and allow them to continue to spend money where it is most needed – with approximately 60% of the budget allocated to adult and children’s services.
Limited funding from central government
With high inflation pushing up all our costs and the needs of residents increasing, the council needed an extra £26million this year to plug the funding gap; instead, we received only a £1.8million increase in our funding grant from the Government.
Wokingham Borough continues to receive the least funding from central government per resident of any unitary authority in the country – £30million per year less than if it was funded in the same way as the average unitary authority – at a time when our residents need support the most.
The budget proposal sets out how the council has saved almost £12million in service efficiencies, of which over £10million comes from cost reductions. This will help to limit the impact on Council Tax payers, but the increase in costs and needs, combined with low government funding, has made increasing Council Tax inevitable.
The proposed increase in the borough council’s element of Council Tax will be 4.99% - this includes a 2% adult social care precept. 1% of the increase will be ring-fenced as a reserve to reduce historic and projected overspends on Special Educational Needs.
The average Band D Council Tax for 2023/24 (including the fire service precept, police precept and average parish council precept is proposed to be £1,751.84.
Due to the current cost of living pressures, additional funds from the council to support residents is being provided. Most recently, the council approved an additional £100,000 to help those who may experience financial difficulties in paying their council tax.
The council has also set aside £250,000 to help those struggling to afford the basics as the long winter draws on during this cost of living crisis.
Costs continue to rise
The increase in inflation rates, which currently stands at over 10 per cent, has meant the cost of everything has continued to rise, not only for residents and local businesses, but also for the council.
To help drive further efficiencies, the council set up an organisational foundation programme (OFP) to provide a coordinated and strategic approach to generating the cost reductions needed. This programme included a focus on its workforce, contracts, procurement and assets.
This year’s robust budget has been designed to ensure the council remains financially sound to ensure vital services are protected and residents receive the help and support they need to keep their families safe.
The budget has been scrutinised across the political spectrum within the council during the past six months. It outlines increases in demand for statutory services for residents, including those with special education needs and disabilities.
Making tough decisions
Leader of the council Cllr Clive Jones said: “Everything we do is costing more money and we have had to make the tough decisions to ensure we are meeting the needs of our residents who look to us for support during these difficult times.
“For many years Wokingham Borough has not received its fair share of funding from central government. We receive about £30million a year less than if we were funded at the national average at a time when additional funding is needed to help us balance the books.
“The Government has created a terrible economic situation for us all – prices going up and up, and people are desperate for support and yet they refuse to help and instead put all the responsibility on local government and local taxpayers.
"We completely understand that Council Tax increases are going to hit people hard and that is why we have found an extra £100,000 to reduce the impact on those worst effected and have set aside £250,000 to support those most in need.
"We have also made huge saving and efficiencies to reduce the impact. But the fact is that we must find the money to help those who need us most and to balance our books so we don’t go bankrupt as other councils have done – with dire consequences for their residents”.
Protecting vital council services
Executive member for finance Cllr Imogen Shepherd-Dubey said: “Setting the council’s budget is a complex process especially with inadequate funding, increasing costs and growing financial pressures. However, we will make cuts wherever possible to make the savings needed to fulfil our commitment to keep all our residents safe and protect vital council services.
“We have made £11.8million in service efficiencies, which is helping to limit the impact on Council Tax payers, but low government funding, at a time when costs are rising significantly, has made the it impossible to avoid Council Tax increases”.
Full details of the proposals are included in the agenda papers for the council meeting. Further information about the council’s financial situation can be found on the council’s Engage Wokingham website.
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